Racing into History

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum preserves the stories of the historic site

By Glenda Winders // Photography by Tom Russo, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum and Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Sometimes when it comes to a great option for a day trip or simple getaway, the small, yet bright gems, are right in our backyard. If you’re a Hoosier and you haven’t been to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — or it’s been several years — consider a visit to refresh your memory of all this historic site has to offer.

The checkered flag of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of the state’s most recognized symbols. And the race itself is one to which people flock from all over the world. In fact, Joe Hale, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, recalled when he checked into an Eco-lodge in a Borneo rainforest, the woman behind the desk — who didn’t speak English — saw where he was from, smiled and said, “Vroom, vroom.”
That being the case, track memorabilia and stories must be maintained somewhere, and Hale said the museum’s mission is to preserve and tell the stories of the Indy 500 over time, which it has been doing for 67 years. Located inside the 2.5-mile track, it was a dream of Tony Hulman, Wilbur Shaw and Karl Kizer that became a reality in 1956, two years after Shaw’s death. For anyone coming to the race or passing through town at some other time of the year, a stop here promises to be as fun as it is educational. The price of admission provides visitors with a host of automobiles and related exhibits to experience.
A good place to start is the Tony Hulman Theatre, where an 8-minute video recounts the speedway’s history. The movie provides a background for exploring the main gallery, where some 34 winning 500 cars are on display. These include the Marmon Wasp that won the very first race for Ray Harroun in 1911, Bob Sweikert’s Zinc Kurtis that won in 1955 and many more recent cars. Photographs of the drivers and other memorabilia are here, too, and a “photo car” enables visitors to take home pictures of themselves as a driver.
“This is a repository that houses stories and items with which these drivers chase immortality — and in some cases mortality — to accomplish something that only 74 people have done, which is to win the 500,” said Jason Vansickle, vice president of curation and education. “There’s a lot of civic and state pride when it comes to the 500, and we tell stories and highlight pieces that you won’t see anywhere else.”
One not-to-be-missed item is the
Borg-Warner Trophy that is presented to the winner on race day and then returned to its home here at the museum. Faces of every winner and original owner Tony Hulman have been created on the million-dollar piece and its predecessors. Roger Penske has owned the track since 2019.
Special exhibits change throughout the year. On display through June of this year is “Second,” which tells the stories of the 74 runners-up, all of whom have been winners in other prestigious races. Previous exhibits have been “Traditions,” which explained why winners drink milk, why the race begins with the command: “Gentlemen, start your engines” and why “Back Home Again in Indiana” is always sung before the race and much more. “Sleek: The Art of the Helmet” invited Indiana artists to design their own headwear. The Gallery, a permanent exhibition, contains artistic renditions of cars and track events. The museum is also the home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame.
For an extra charge, visitors can see the top-secret collection in the basement, which features a variety of race cars and Indiana-built passenger cars that have rarely been seen. This is a guided private tour containing some of the most expensive cars in the world that is so carefully guarded you can’t even take photos. Kara Kovert Pray, vice president of marketing and communications, said this tour is a popular birthday or holiday gift for an auto enthusiast.
If you’ve come with a group, a nominal extra charge will enable you to take a guided tour through the museum that will provide you with additional facts and stories that enhance the memorabilia you are seeing. Then, when you’re finished inside, head out for a “Kiss the Bricks” tour that includes a half-hour narrated trip around the track with a stop at the start/finish line to kiss the bricks just like the winners do. A “View from the Top” tour includes seeing the track from the victory podium and the famous Pagoda. A 90-minute “Golf Cart” tour takes you all around the grounds.
Be sure to stop in the gift shop for an “I Kissed the Bricks” mug that proves you did the deed, as well as clothing items and other souvenirs. Here is also where you can purchase a copy of “Epic Drama: The Winning Collection of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum,” the first book published by the museum. The volume includes images of winning cars by renowned automotive photographer, Bill Park.
The museum does a lot more than welcome visitors. Since it is operated by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation, a non-profit organization,
it depends on memberships to support many of its initiatives. Ranging from $90 to whatever a donor has to offer, these come with privileges, such as free tickets and rounds of golf at the Brickyard Crossing Golf Course located inside the famous oval.
Hale said the museum also arranges unique experiences for its members, such as the Hy-Vee IndyCar race in Des Moines, Iowa, where they will also enjoy two concerts performed by the likes of Carrie Underwood and Ed Sheeran and view the largest collection of Chevrolets in existence. During race week, higher-end donors attend a dinner with racing greats, this year Mario Andretti. One group attends the Goodwood Revival that celebrates English motor racing in Chichester, England.
Cars and Coffee is open to the public between April and October on the
second Saturday of the month. At those times, car enthusiasts enjoy coffee and doughnuts as they stroll among 700 to 800 cars that their owners bring in for the occasion. The “An Evening With …”
series enables the audience to listen to and meet familiar names in racing history. A recent one featured Bobby Rahal and his son, Graham.
Teachers are great beneficiaries of the museum, too. In partnership with the 500 Festival, each year fourth-graders from every county in the state are invited to visit several “stations” on racetrack property, and one of them is the museum. During the COVID-19 pandemic when the museum was closed, Vansickle and his team turned their attention to creating online lesson plans, guides and activities that teachers are now able to use as they prepare for their classes’ visits.
One more way to enjoy the museum is to plan an event here. Hold a lunch in The Gallery amid the pieces of race-themed art or a dinner on the museum floor surrounded by famous cars. For Indy 500 race fans, it doesn’t get much better than that.